directed by Simon West
Travolta Pigs Out
As an indicator of the poisonous, predatory pathology that currently governs Hollywood, Simon West’s The General’s Daughter runs a close second to Joel Schumacher’s 8mm in 1999’s Most Loathsome Movie of the Year sweepstakes. Do I inadvertently make it sound noteworthy and appealingly appalling, at a time when the major studios are so remote from any superlative? I hope not, because this bloated John Travolta vehicle is also a bloody bore, proof that the least sexy byproduct of artistic and moral collapse is sheer, drooling, fork-in-your-own-eyeball incompetence.
As a type, West’s film shares certain elements with Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, movies whose technical and esthetic brilliance allowed them to be seen as exceptions to (and alas, justifications for) a rule that made the rapacious brutalization of women a narrative norm and, increasingly, a social archetype. The film’s title character is a very attractive and spirited young woman who, only minutes after we begin to assume that she’ll be Travolta’s romantic interest, is found nude and bloody, spread-eagled on military training turf after having been lavishly tortured, raped and murdered. (So much for movie romance at the millennium, when Hollywood has the savoir faire of de Sade.) The rest of the tale nominally concerns the hunt for her killer, but it might more accurately be seen as a lip-smackingly ghoulish meditation on her corpse and how it got that way: We not only see the lethal rape over and over, but also an earlier one when the upshot wasn’t death but merely profound degradation and piteous mental breakdown.
As with 8mm, the most shocking thing about all this is how unshocking it feels as it rolls off the screen. We’ve seen the basic horrors so often that they’ve become humdrum items in our mental attics; what used to be extraordinarily unsettling now feels that way only when we stop to reflect on how desensitized to images of human suffering it has left us. In this case, though, the effect isn’t nearly so outrageous or offensive as it is dreadfully depressing. How did movies get this bad? Let us distinguish, first, the two essential sorts of bad represented here. There’s the bad that means inhuman and antihuman, avid for the quasi-pornographic defilement of vulnerable bodies and souls; for this, explanation must be sought in the toxic confluence of several spiritual and social malaises. Then there’s the bad that denotes the aforementioned’s garish, shoddy and ham fisted execution; here the reasons are inevitably more mundane and close at hand. Take, for example, the financial angle.
In the “Money & Business” section of the June 13 New York Times, an article titled “Revenge of the Bean Counters” detailed the economic crunch Hollywood currently finds itself in. Granted, alarms over the skyward spiraling of production costs have been a recurrent attraction in the movie press for decades, since budgetary extravagance was measured in millions rather than in hundreds thereof. But the Times is not wrong that, with once-powerful talent agencies now in a reduced position of influence, “the studios are regaining the upper hand, and their main weapon is supply and demand. Under strict orders from their corporate owners to pay more heed to the bottom line, studios are making fewer films, forcing the people who work in the industry to carve up a smaller pie.” Correction: forcing some of the people in the industry to accept smaller slices. There’s the rub. Everywhere, the costs of making movies are ballooning and menacing profits, so studio beancounters are cutting corners as ruthlessly as they can. Except in one area, an area that so far remains effectively inviolable: the salaries of top stars. And in many cases the economic impact of one of the industry’s top draws isn’t limited to the landfill in his pay envelope.
You may be tempted to think that I’m making up the following, but I swear it’s true. The credits of The General’s Daughter include people occupying the following positions: Mr. Travolta’s Make-up, Mr. Travolta’s Hair Stylist, Mr. Travolta’s Costumer, Executive Assistant to Mr. Travolta, Production Assistant to Mr. Travolta, Assistant to Mr. Travolta, Mr. Travolta’s Trainer, and Craft Service for Mr. Travolta. (The latter office involves providing food and snacks for Mr. T. Given Travolta’s chipmunk cheeks and waddling girth, his craft service guy evidently got far more of a workout than his trainer.) Now, I want to underscore that I’ve been a Travolta fan since his tv days, and remain so today. No one welcomed his Pulp Fiction resurrection more gleefully than I. I’ve never razzed him about Scientology, nor from most standpoints do I deplore his current $20 million asking price. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever said a discouraging word about Travolta or his career, and today I just have one such word, in light of those names in the credits: Oink.
It is a bit piggish, is it not, to foist a flotilla of one’s personal flunkies and attendants on a production that otherwise is undernourished due in large part to one’s perhaps deserved but inarguably gargantuan salary. Because by all indications that’s exactly the problem with The General’s Daughter. It’s a prime example of what happens when a $65 million movie tries to be a $50 million movie (these figures are guestimates, but reasonable ones, I think) and the star’s $20 million salary and the various perks demanded by his ego can’t be touched: Everything else suffers.
It’s simple arithmetic, and you can see the dreary bottom line in the first five minutes of The General’s Daughter. The movie opens with a credits sequence during which we see the doings around a Southern Army base, climaxing with the trumpeted arrival of and a brief speech by the title’s eponymous general (James Cromwell). What’s wrong with this very standard introductory scene? Well, lots. The photography and lighting (by Peter Menzies Jr.) look cheap and shoddy. Ditto the editing
and production design (Glen Scantlebury and Dennis Washington, respectively). Most tellingly of all, the one element here that is good, the score, is good in a particular way: Very imaginative but notably unsuited to what’s happening on screen, it comes off as if composer Carter Burwell, having watched the whole movie, figured, “This is such irremediable crap, I’ll just please myself by writing whatever amuses me.”
Who could blame him? If the producers had been going for real top-dollar quality, they would have engaged a director really gifted in such genre pictures, someone like The Fugitive‘s Andrew Davis, and let him surround himself with the best collaborators money could buy. Instead, they hired Con Air‘s West, another of those visionless Brits schooled in tv commercials who knows as little about handling actors as he does about cinematic style. The General’s Daughter thus is horribly directed, obvious, vulgar and filled with ho-hum work by better-than-that performers.
Money was spent, no doubt, on the services of veteran scripter William Goldman, who perhaps supplied the six or eight swatches of verbal wit that adorn the film’s boilerplate screenplay, co-credited to Christopher Bertolini and based on what would seem to be a particularly trashy airport novel by Nelson DeMille. No amount of Goldmanesque badinage, though, can paper over the dull ugliness in which this film, like too many others in its depleted genre currently, trades and abounds.
As 8mm rammed home, Hollywood now seems incapable of thinking “thriller” without automatically jumping to “s&m” and, especially, “torture and sickening sexual abuse of women.” Those are the first elements nailed in place here. Travolta is a military investigator assigned to crack a crime at a Georgia Army base when a more heinous offense is committed: The commanding general’s daughter, herself an officer on the base (Leslie Stefanson), is found raped, mutilated and stone-cold dead. The investigation that follows turns up evidence of her secret life in s&m (of course) as well as a slew of suspects played by the likes of James Woods, Timothy Hutton and Clarence Williams III.
You’re already thinking, “Daddy did it,” I know, but the movie’s gist is actually worse than any literal reading of that suspicion. The general’s daughter, we learn, years before was horribly raped by fellow soldiers at West Point (which naturally occasions more gruesome rape footage in the form of flashbacks) and Daddy, rather than forcing an investigation that would bring the culprits to justice, protected his own job security and political ambitions by telling her to “forget about it.”
Oh yeah? How many fathers, even creepy militarists with presidential aspirations, would do such a thing? I submit: none. I further submit that, in addition to morbid sexual activity like rapes and torture, this current lot of thrillers has another pornographic specialty: the leering contradiction and insulting of basic human nature, under the relativist rubric that there is no such thing.
Real horror films bring to light fears and weaknesses that we, as individuals or a society, actually possess. This new breed, much to the contrary, depends heavily on formulas of manufactured blame and recrimination, formulas that lead us into paranoia and ignorance rather than toward their banishment. At the root of The General’s Daughter is the fetishized figure of the Bad Daddy, which in addition to being the biggest cliche of late-90s movies—it even infests “art” films like The Celebration and Happiness—also increasingly reads like a peculiar form of institutional blame-shifting. For my money, it often
looks like there’s no bogeyman in this particular cupboard, except Hollywood itself: the Bad Daddy who demonstrably and repeatedly makes unconscionable use of women and our willing imaginations.
I was late catching up with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Besieged, and a little shocked when I did. The film, the tale of a displaced African woman’s relationship with an expat musician
in Rome, is enjoyable but by most measures minor Bertolucci, kind of a multi-culti,
female-centered Last Tango with sentimental longing substituting for
erotic obsession. But if the nation’s critics were as visually fluent as cinema
deserves, surely we should have seen at least a few alarmed reviews headlined
COME BACK, VITTORIO—BERNARDO MISSES YOU.
The collaboration of Bertolucci
and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro remains one of the glories of the modern
cinema; it began with 1970’s The Spider’s Stratagem (my choice for the
most visually crucial film of the past half-century) and continued through 1994’s
Little Buddha. In his last two films, though, Bertolucci has used other
cinematographers, and the outcome has been to inadvertently underline Storaro’s
importance to the visual magic of his work. Granted, Besieged, which
was shot by Fabio Cianchetti and is markedly inferior to the Darius Khondji-shot
Stealing Beauty, has a lively, inventive look complete with Bertolucci’s
trademark camera balletics and fine grasp of the tale’s pomo-Roma milieu. But
it strikingly lacks Storaro’s precise, elegant framings, meticulous way with
lighting and film grain and, above all, his unparalleled expressiveness with
color. The result almost looks like a student imitation of Bertolucci, and it
makes me hope that, whatever their differences, the auteur and the camera virtuoso
will soon reunite.